The column by Lawrence Martin, A Family Tragedy That Stephen Harper Has Not Forgotten (July 9), has been brought to my attention recently because of its extensive references to Stephen Harper's grandfather, Harris Harper - my father. Given the column draws from a single source - a 97-year-old retired teacher - it is an incomplete presentation of the facts. Therefore, I would like to set the record straight.
My father disappeared on Jan. 21, 1950. I was 13 days short of my 13th birthday, an age that many cultures consider entering manhood, and hence I believe a credible witness to the events of that Saturday afternoon in Moncton. Dad left the house after lunch to walk seven blocks down Highfield Street to the doctor's office to get an injection (vitamin B). After receiving the injection, he was seen going down the office steps. This was his last verified sighting and it was not known whether he turned right or left.
Mr. Martin's source speculates: "They think he walked down Main Street, turned left and went past Eaton's to the bridge and jumped in the river. The tide took him out." For the record, the doctor's office was on Highfield Street, half a block from Main Street, so to get to the bridge he would have had to walk to Main Street, turn left, walk to Foundry Street, and then turn right to go past Eaton's, which indicates some confusion regarding facts versus recollection.
Further to the matter of facts, according to my research, Helen Tippett taught at the Prince Edward School in 1939, and had not been a Prince Edward faculty member for several years before my father's disappearance, and had not maintained a close relationship with him since leaving the faculty. The Prince Edward School was constructed in 1927 as an elementary school, it never was a high school, and my father was its first and only principal up to 1950. My father never had a diagnosed nervous breakdown nor was he on any type of sick leave and/or relieved of his teaching duties in 1949. In fact, he was teaching right up through the Friday before he disappeared the next day. On that day, his uncashed paycheque was left on his dresser. And, my father taught at the Aberdeen High School from 1925-27, where the students gave him the nickname "Poof" because of his pronunciation of "proof" in mathematics classes.
Now, returning to the conditions at the time of his disappearance: The distance from our house to the doctor's office is approximately 2,000 feet. The distance from the doctor's office to the bridge is approximately 7,000 feet. The high temperature on Jan. 21, 1950, was -13.9 degrees C, which was the highest temperature of the previous 36 hours.
My father went to the doctor's office without his wallet, and he walked because of the close proximity of our house to the office. The major retail establishments and shops, except for grocery stores, closed at 1 p.m. on Saturdays; hence, at the time he left the doctor's office, there would have been a higher than normal amount of both pedestrian and vehicle traffic on the streets.
In order to buy into the assumption that he walked from the doctor's office to the bridge in very cold weather, some 1.33 miles, one would have to also accept that at this peak traffic time, no pedestrians or drivers saw him, even though it was common practice in those days for drivers to offer pedestrians rides across the river, particularly in cold and stormy weather.
The police were advised that he appeared to be missing early Saturday evening, and they immediately started checking clubs, restaurants, movie theatres, etc. On Sunday, they sent out provincewide and cross-Canada alerts, and started organizing an area-wide search to begin Monday morning involving the reserve army, high school cadets, boy scouts, and citizens - more than a thousand volunteers. The search went on all week and yielded nothing. It was the consensus that if he did jump into the river, the body would not wash out to sea because of the large amount of ice in the river and on the banks, but rather would get caught up in the ice - hence, the long search period.
Going back to the time he was positively identified leaving the doctor's office, the identifying individual spoke to him and said that my father seemed confused and/or disoriented and did not show any recognition.
On Monday, the police got a credible report that a person matching his description had spent Saturday night (and maybe even Sunday night) at the Saint John Salvation Army Hostel. Three or four weeks later, the police distributed missing-person flyers throughout Canada and the United States - I helped stuff the envelopes - and there were several reports of sightings but none could be verified. Another distribution of missing-person flyers was carried out the next year with the same results.
After a year, there was a petition filed with the courts to have him declared dead, but it was pointed out that at that time, there was more evidence suggesting he was still alive, possibly a victim of amnesia. This, however, was never proved nor disproved.
Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to present these additional facts regarding my father's disappearance. As one can see, it is not at all clear that he committed suicide.